At 5 feet 5 inches, in the arena of women’s tennis where the average height in the top 10 is 5 feet 8 inches, Belgium’s Justine Henin can be likened to a shrub in a forest of sequoias. Yet, in spite of her diminutive stature, in the last few years, Henin has become a dominant force on the tour. Last year, Henin earned two majors’ trophies and won ten of the fourteen tournaments she entered. Ironically, as the height of her competitors has grown, Henin’s game has evolved and her ranking ascended to number one in the last year. In a world where the opponents are becoming more powerful physically, it is a wonder that such a player has been able to thrive.
Partly, Henin’s success can be explained by talent. To the observer, the racket can be defined as a quasi-natural extension of her arm. The one handed backhand, in particular, is hit with such finesse, the spectator is mesmerized that someone of her size can generate such precision, control and power simultaneously. This type of shot enables Henin to take the upper hand in the rally from anywhere on the court. As Henin herself has stated in speaking of her backhand, “it’s natural [since] I was five, it [has been] the same . . . I think it was in me.” Moreover, what seems remarkable is Henin’s ability to keep her opponent guessing by varying that shot, thereby, opening up her options in order to finish off the point. There was a time when the forehand was labeled as Henin’s Achilles heal, but even that has been solidified, in turn making the backhand an even more potent weapon.
While height has not been a hindrance with these aforementioned shots, one area of Henin’s game that has suffered because of her lack of inches has been the serve. In fact, it is rare to see her produce aces in a match. Nonetheless, Henin has compensated for this weakness by varying the serve’s placement thereby increasing the degree of difficulty for the returner while still maintaining the upper hand. Although there is a lot to admire technically about Henin’s game, from my viewpoint, talent is only one factor in understanding her triumph in the sport. After all, there have been plenty of so-called talented youngsters who never realized their potential or who became one slam wonders; thus, being gifted is seldom enough. Probably the greatest element contributing to Henin’s success is what she has between the ears. Simply stated, she just has a great mind for the game fuelled by perseverance and determination, which are keys for making it to the top.
Henin’s meteoric rise began in 2001, when she went from a ranking of 100, the previous year, to 45 in January of that year. By June of 2001, she was the world’s fifth best player, quite an amazing feat. Considering that when one starts out in this profession, it is usually as a teen, the patience and dedication required to succeed can be too much to bear. For someone so young to develop the discipline to practice and a good work ethic can be a challenge when there are so many outside distractions. But it was evident from the start that Henin was driven and focused on being the best player she could be and was prepared to put forth the prerequisite time and effort. Most importantly, early on Henin learned to recognize what parts of her game were her strong suits and to use them to her advantage. In an August 2001 interview, Henin was asked how she could counteract the power coming from the rackets of the Williams sisters or Davenport, taking into account that their height provides them with such a significant advantage. Henin replied “ It’s not a problem for me . . . I think that . . . they are strong, they’re playing hard . . . But I think I have other things in my game to [oppose] that . . .I’m very fast on the court. I move well . . . I work hard . . . I [will] be more strong . . . I think that everybody has her place on the tour.” In other words, while height was a limitation that she could not alter, there are other elements in the game she can control, thus, she was going to do her best at maximizing her potential.
On the court, physical power is only one part of the equation when it comes to winning; power is also derived from being able to dissect your rival’s game. Using that knowledge to unmask the opponent’s handicaps can make the difference in the outcome of the match. In a 2001 interview at the Australian Open, Henin was questioned once again by a reporter about her frame: “Are you discouraged at all knowing that with your built you are going against girls who are larger and stronger down the line like Venus, Serena, Lindsay type. Is that discouraging for you?”. Henin answered “ I am not a stronger player. I think I play with everything in my game with my slice, with my head . . . So I am not a stronger player like them. But [I play] with [my] possibilities.” Being cognizant of players’ strengths and weaknesses presents another dimension to analyze as Henin formulates what strategy to employ against her competitor. This statement may have seemed a bit trite, but it was tremendous insight for a mere 17 year old.
Barring injuries, passion is one of the assets that permits an athlete to be durable and sustain a productive career in his sport. Without the hunger to compete, for some even the huge monetary compensation seems a hollow reward. Luckily, Henin has a great love for the game. Despite being younger, fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters at 5 feet 8 inches turned pro a couple of years earlier then Henin. While both players’ careers peaked at the same time, Clijsters’ stamina for the tour was not as strong and her triumphs not as great. Although she reached the finals of five majors, Clijsters won only one while Henin has prevailed in 7 of 9. Clijsters never appeared to exude the same passion for the sport as her countrywoman. This can be inferred from her decision to hang up her racket in 2007, at the age of 24. Although injuries may have pushed her to that conclusion, Clijsters had always made it clear that her main priority in life was to get married and have children at a young age, following in her mother’s footsteps. Nowadays, Clijsters is pregnant living hopefully in marital bliss with baby soon to be in tow with tennis relegated to her past.
Henin’s passion for the sport arises from having shared a love of the game with her mother. Regrettably, at the age of twelve, Henin’s mother passed away from cancer. When such a calamity befalls an adolescent, he or she can go down one of two paths, that of wallowing in self-pity and self-destruction or that of drawing strength from disgrace; Henin took the latter. This tragedy became a source of motivation for her to pursue her dreams and aspirations. Moreover, it seems that with Henin, tennis serves as a means to honor and remember her mom. In fact, her unwavering conviction in her calling and her affection for the game led Henin to abandon her home in pursuit of tennis glory because her father did not understand her devotion. In witnessing her mother’s battle with her illness, it is likely that the primary lesson that Henin extracted was the importance of perseverance even in the most adverse of situations. With the pressures and tension of competition, mental fortitude can tip the scale in favor of a player. Early on in her career, Henin recognized the importance of mental toughness. In a 2001 post match session she was asked: “where does your mental strength comes from?” Henin answered: “I think that it may be natural. . . I think it’s the [most] important part of my game…. I can play very well, but if I don’t have the head to play a good match, it’s not good . . . I try to be positive and be aggressive and go and try to win”.
In 2007, Henin was handed another crushing blow when her marriage of four years fell apart. For many people, this would have resulted in a lost of concentration and a tumble down the rankings. But after a brief sabbatical, Henin refocused her attention on tennis and got back to the business of winning, putting together her best year on tour to date. In light of the circumstances that Henin has had to deal with at a tender age, it was not surprising that Henin was able to put that chapter of her life into perspective. To Henin, the racket seems to be an outlet that helps in balancing her life. For Henin, the game can be described as a refuge from daily preoccupations, the bonus is that she can also earn a decent living at what she enjoys. Agility, mobility, shot making ability and a gigantic fighting spirit, all the tangible and intangible facets that comprise her game, are the reasons Henin has become a revered player.
Perhaps, the ultimate compliment that has been paid to Henin is that she is “the female Roger Federer”. Considering that Federer is being pegged as possibly the best player ever, that is indeed high praise for Henin. Yet, unlike Federer, she has had to deal with her height as a limitation, making her accomplishments even more commendable. It appears innate in human nature to root for David against Goliath. Maybe, the feeling of pride in seeing the underdog triumph comes from identifying with that particular athlete. The world is replete with little girls who will never be 5 feet 8 inches or taller, but with the goal of someday becoming a sensation on the tennis circuit. How wonderful that Henin exists to remind them that physical attributes can only take one so far, indeed, drive and hard work do count and can lead them to their goal. So to the vertically challenged, do not despair, hold on to the dream of being the next great champion. As Henin stated “I think . . . size maybe important. But I don’t think [that it’s] the most [important]”.